Ethics & Armchair Management Advice

Andrew Leonard at Salon had an interesting (and, to me, odd) piece a few days ago: The Wal-Mart effect on workers [subscription required]. In it, Leonard quotes Charles Fishman, author of The Wal-Mart Effect. (I haven’t read Fishman’s book yet, but I know he’s written some interesting stuff in the past, including this article from 3 years ago: The Wal-Mart You Don’t Know)

Anyway, here’s what Fishman says (quoted by Leonard) about Wal-Mart’s new plan to use real-time computerized scheduling of workers’ shifts to optimize the number of workers in a store at any time:

I think the plan described…is wrong-headed, disrespectful, and won’t solve the problems Wal-Mart is trying to solve — while creating new ones.
Scheduling people is not, in fact, like scheduling electricity purchases or scheduling the arrival of trucks at a loading dock. You can’t “optimize” them if their work lives spin their personal lives into chaos and uncertainty.

What strikes me as odd about Fishman’s comments is that he’s essentially giving management advice — advice on efficiency — to one of the most efficient corporations in the world. I mean, hey, go for it: we’re all free to offer as much advice as we want (not that Wal-Mart’s necessarily going to listen). But Fishman’s comments here are an example of an argumentation pattern I’ve seen before: start off making an ethical argument, and then ground that argument in some arm-chair prudential advice.

Other examples I’ve heard in the last few months:

  • “There’s nothing wrong with pirating music, because after all, big music companies should realize that this is a form of advertising! They should realize that on-line filesharing is just going to help them sell more records!”
  • “Food companies shouldn’t be allowed to clone or genetically modify foods. After all, what’s the point? Traditional agriculture works just fine! They’re wasting their money!”

Now in each case, the conclusion reached just might be right. My point is that the arguments are faulty. In each case, critics seem to arrive at a moral conclusion on narrowly prudential grounds. As I tell my own students: we should always be very cautious in assuming that a management strategy that we don’t understand is actually stupid, especially when it’s being carried out by an organization that is famous for making smart decisions.

[Thanks to Caitlin Roran for the pointer.]

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